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Finding the superior athlete: SPARQ linebackers in the 2018 NFL Draft

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We have a handful of linebackers that could be of interest for the Cowboys.

NFL: New York Giants at Dallas Cowboys

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In two previous posts (on edge rushers and defensive tackles) we looked at a metric called SPARQ, which is a single number designed to summarize a player’s athleticism. The number is calculated with a proprietary formula that incorporates player weight, bench press, broad jump, vertical jump, 40-yard dash, 10-yard split, short shuttle and 3-cone drill (details here).

In those two posts, we combined the SPARQ metric with a metric for the college production to see which draft prospects would emerge as the most productive AND most athletic. Today, we’re turning our attention to off-the-line linebackers (there’ll be an addendum on pass rushing 3-4 OLBs at the bottom of this post) and the metric we’ll be using to measure their college production is called “Production Points.”

PRODUCTION

“Production Points” are metrics that look at the available linebacker stats and weights them with a point system as follows:

Production Points scoring system
Stat Points
Tackle 1
Tackle For Loss 3
QB Hurries 3
Pass Breakup 3
Sack 6
Forced Fumble
6
Interception 9

Once we’ve tallied all the points for a given player, we’ll divide the total by the number of college games played.

To kick things off, and to get a feel for the metric, let’s look at the Production Points for the top three off-the-line linebackers (as measured by Approximate Value) from the 2012-2015 draft classes.

Drafted NFL College Production Production
Points
Year Round (Pick) Player POS Approx. Val. Tkl TFL QBH SACK PBU FF INT Games
2012 1 (9) Luke Kuechly ILB 73 374 22.5 2 1.5 6 2 6 25 20.5
2 (47) Bobby Wagner ILB 73 280 19.5 5 4.5 4 - - 2 20 15.1
2 (58) Lavonte David OLB 52 285 24.5 6 11.5 10 3 2 27 16.8
2013 1 (30) Alec Ogletree OLB 38 163 19 8 6 7 3 1 18 16.2
2 (52) Jamie Collins OLB 35 190 39.5 9 16.5 13 5 1 26 16.3
2 (46) Kiko Alonso ILB 25 127 20 3 3.5 3 2 6 24 10.9
2014 1 (17) C.J. Mosley ILB 47 215 17 12 4 7 2 2 25 13.9
1 (9) Anthony Barr OLB 35 148 41 6 23 6 - - 10 27 14.6
5 (144) Telvin Smith ILB 35 250 15.5 0 6 4 1 6 24 15.5
2015 2 (43) Benardrick McKinney ILB 25 141 15 7 6.5 4 1 0 26 8.8
2 (45) Erick Kendricks ILB 23 250 15.5 0 6 4 1 6 24 15.5
4 (124) Kwon Alexander ILB 21 155 14 6 1.5 5 2 0 25 9.3

As measured by Approximate Value, the 12 players above are the top linebackers in their respective draft classes. And going by their Production Points, it seems that a score of 15 or more is a strong indicator of very high college productivity, and potentially future NFL success. Seven of these players had elite production in college with >15 production points (marked in blue), two more had above average production (green), and three had below average production (yellow). Which means nine of the 12 players above, or 75%, had a strong track record of production in college. Unfortunately, it doesn't work the other way around: just because a player has a strong track record of production in college doesn't automatically make him an above average player in the NFL.

Before we look at this year’s draft class, a couple of very general observations about Production Points: This number is just one way of looking at the data we have for each prospect. It is not the be-all, end-all of statistical analysis. In fact, I’d be the first to argue that it isn’t even a stat at all, but merely a stat comprehension tool. This metric groups a bunch of numbers that may or may not correlate with each other, and infers causality where there may not even be a correlation.

Production Points are not a perfect stat. But as long as you understand the limitations of the metric, you will also understand its benefits. Here’s a summary from a post I wrote on the topic in 2016.

When you look at the stats you want from an inside linebacker, you want to see a lot of tackles, because that could be an indication that the player diagnoses plays well and has a nose for the ball. You want to see some TFLs and perhaps a few sacks because that could mean he is fast to read and react. You want to see some passes defensed or even a few interceptions because that could mean he plays the pass well.

At the same time, you need to understand the context in which those stats were achieved. A linebacker might have a high tackle number because the defensive scheme he played in funneled ball-carriers his way. He might have high TFL and sack numbers because he moonlighted as a pass rusher on occasion, and those interceptions and passes defensed may have had more to do with luck than with a specific skill.

But we’ll use the Production Points system anyway, cognizant of its flaws, because the metric does one thing very well: it provides a different perspective by which to evaluate the draft prospects - and in my book, anything that gets us off the beaten path is a good thing.

Generally, what you want is a player with a Production Points score above 13, which has been the average of the linebacker draft classes over the last few years (this year's average is 12.4). A score of 15 or more is a strong indicator of very high college productivity, and potentially future NFL success. Just for reference, Sean Lee had 15.7 Production Points in his last two full college seasons, Rolando McClain had 13.8, Anthony Hitchens had 13.4, and Jaylon Smith 13.3. Ryan Shazier, who the Cowboys had a well-documented interest in, had 19.2 production points.

Here are the scores for this year's linebacker class. To sort the table, click on the dark blue column headers.

Player Details Production
Points
POS Rank Player School Proj. Rd Ht Wt Last two seasons
ILB 9 Tremaine Edmunds Virginia Tech 1 6-5 253 14.7
OLB/ILB 12 Roquan Smith Georgia 1 6-1 236 12.5
ILB 22 Leighton Vander Esch Boise State 1 6-4 256 14.1
OLB/ILB 36 Rashaan Evans Alabama 1-2 6-3 234 9.9
OLB/ILB 62 Malik Jefferson Texas 2 6-3 236 11.5
ILB 74 Micah Kiser Virginia 2-3 6-2 240 17.5
ILB 93 Josey Jewell Iowa 3 6-1 235 17.2
OLB/ILB 115 Fred Warner BYU 3-4 6-3 227 11.8
ILB 144 Genard Avery Memphis 4-5 6-1 255 13.9
ILB 156 Azeem Victor Washington 5 6-1 230 6.9
OLB/ILB 169 Darius Leonard South Carolina State 5 6-2 234 21.3
ILB 178 Jack Cichy Wisconsin 5-6 6-2 234 10.3
ILB 197 Tegray Scales Indiana 5-6 6-0 230 15.4
ILB 216 Kenny Young UCLA 6 6-1 236 11.0
ILB 234 Keishawn Bierria Washington 6-7 6-2 223 7.3
ILB 237 Joel Iyiegbuniwe Western Kentucky 7 6-1 230 11.0

Far and away the most productive player here is Darius Leonhard, whose 21.3 points are the best we've seen by a linebacker over the last few years. But those stats came playing against other FCS opponents, so we have to be careful not to overrate Leonhard's production. Nevertheless, many NFL teams have shown interest in the prolific linebacker, among them the Dallas Cowboys, who invited Leonard for one of the Top 30 visits earlier this month.

Micah Kiser and Josey Jewell, both likely Day Two picks, also put up very strong numbers, and Indiana's Tegray Scales completes the quartet of linebackers with very high college production.

Three more players, Tremaine Edmunds, Leighton Vander Esch, and Genard Avery also had above average college production.

Roquan Smith, widely seen as the best linebacker in this class, comes in just below average at 12.5, which is a bit surprising given his status as a top ten prospect. This shows the limitations of an analysis like this that is entirely based on volume stats and doesn't take film or intangibles into consideration. Plus, a good player is more likely to get a lot of production on a bad team than on a good team. Other highly-rated players like Rashaan Evans and Malik Jefferson also show up with below average production points, and teams will have to figure why these prospects didn't put up the stats comparably ranked players did. The same holds true for Cowboys mock draft favorites Fred Warner and Jack Cichy: are their low production points the result of scheme, position, and team quality, or is it something intrinsic to the player, which would be a warning sign going forward.

From a production point of view, this is a good linebacker class with highly productive linebackers available in almost every round. And we also know that the metrics we used here may not tell the entire story of a prospect. Which is why we'll look at each prospect's athleticism next, hoping that it will add another level of clarity to this class.

ATHLETICISM

With the production out of he way, here are the pSPARQ scores for this year’s off-the-line linebackers, courtesy of Zach Whitman at 3sigmaathlete.com (click on the blue column headers to sort):

Player Details SPARQ Data Production
Points
POS Rank Player School Proj. Rd Ht Wt pSPARQ z-score NFL%t Last two seasons
ILB 9 Tremaine Edmunds Virginia Tech 1 6-5 253 127.4 0.5 69.2 14.7
OLB/ILB 12 Roquan Smith Georgia 1 6-1 236 126.1 0.5 68.1 12.5
ILB 22 Leighton Vander Esch Boise State 1 6-4 256 143.6 1.9 97.3 14.1
OLB/ILB 36 Rashaan Evans Alabama 1-2 6-3 234 -- -- -- 9.9
OLB/ILB 62 Malik Jefferson Texas 2 6-3 236 135.4 1.2 89.3 11.5
ILB 74 Micah Kiser Virginia 2-3 6-2 240 126.2 0.5 68.4 17.5
ILB 93 Josey Jewell Iowa 3 6-1 235 115.0 -0.4 32.8 17.2
OLB/ILB 115 Fred Warner BYU 3-4 6-3 227 132.3 0.9 80.4 11.8
ILB 144 Genard Avery Memphis 4-5 6-1 255 134.2 1.1 87.4 13.9
ILB 156 Azeem Victor Washington 5 6-1 230 116.7 -0.3 38.0 6.9
OLB/ILB 169 Darius Leonard South Carolina State 5 6-2 234 -- -- -- 21.3
ILB 178 Jack Cichy Wisconsin 5-6 6-2 234 -- -- -- 10.3
ILB 197 Tegray Scales Indiana 5-6 6-0 230 -- -- -- 15.4
ILB 216 Kenny Young UCLA 6 6-1 236 119.9 0 48.2 11.0
ILB 234 Keishawn Bierria Washington 6-7 6-2 223 109.5 -0.8 21.4 7.3
ILB 237 Joel Iyiegbuniwe Western Kentucky 7 6-1 230 121.1 0.1 52.2 11.0

Unfortunately, we don’t have SPARQ scores for highly-ranked Rashaan Evans, along with late-round prospects like Darius Leonard, Jack Cichy, and Tegray Scales. In Evans' case, this is a bit concerning. He's been described as a football player first and athlete second, so there were questions about his athleticism prior to the combine. But he didn't run the 40 at the combine and didn't run it at his pro day either, so those questions remain.

Evans, who did not run the 40 at the combine or Alabama’s first pro day, did not run yesterday. That left a very bad taste in the mouths of teams who purposely made the trip to watch his workout.

Several teams questioned Evans’ speed going into the predraft process, and the fact that he hasn’t yet run the 40 coupled with a vertical jump of just 30 inches and a broad jump of 9-foot-8 will raise further red flags about his athleticism.

Factor in terrific workouts by many of the linebackers at the combine (Lorenzo Carter, Leighton Vander Esch) and it adds up to bad news for Evans.

In a recent interview with Bobby Belt, Evans explained that he didn't run the 40 because he “really just wanted my film to speak for itself.“ That's certainly one way of answering that question, but it doesn't change the fact that Evans’ combine numbers are a huge red flag.

Darius Leonard, Jack Cichy, and Tegray Scales didn't complete enough drills in their workouts, so we don't have an official pSPARQ score for any of them either.

But enough with the no-shows. Topping the Sparq scores for this draft class is Leighton Vander Esch, one of the favorites for the Cowboys' first-round pick, with a phenomenal 143.6 pSPARQ score that puts him in the 97th percentile among all NFL players at his position. We already saw that Vander Esch had an above average production in college; couple that with elite athleticism and you've got just the type of player the Cowboys - and every other NFL team - should be looking for.

Combining athleticism and production is exactly what we'll do in the next graph, where we take the above data one step further and graphically visualize who the top off-the-ball linebackers in this draft are, if you’re going by college production and athletic potential):

How to read the graph:

The two red lines divide the graph into above average and below average performers. Players with 13 or more Production Points (the top two quadrants, “A” and “C”) delivered an above average production in their last two college seasons. Players with 120 or more SPARQ points (the two quadrants on the right, “A” and “B”) are above average athletes relative to their NFL peers.

The A quadrant (top right) shows the players with a strong track record of production and the pre-requisite athleticism that should allow them to compete at the NFL level.

The Cowboys have a need at linebacker and should be pleased to find four prospects in this quadrant, two of which, Leighton Vander Esch and Tremaine Edmunds, are likely first-round targets.

The C quadrant (top left) features players with a strong record of production at the college level, but who have questions regarding their athletic ability.

Josey Jewell is the only player in this quadrant, and while he is a try-hard guy, his limited athleticism makes it unlikely that he'll be able to repeat his production at the NFL level.

The B quadrant (bottom right) shows superior athletes whose college production has been sub par, but this doesn’t automatically invalidate them as potential prospects. So much of a player’s college production depends on the type of scheme he played in, the players he played next to, the opponents he played against, and the role he was asked to play.

Again, film study will show you what to make of a player’s seemingly low production, and being in the B-quadrant is not an automatic death knell, especially for players like Roquan Smith, Fred Warner, and Malik Jefferson, who are right at the border to the A-quadrant.

The D quadrant (bottom left) is not one you want to be in if you’re an NFL draft prospect. NFL teams looking at these players will need to understand why both the college production and the athletic markers for these prospects are below those of their peers. There may be reasons for both, but the guys in this quadrant will face much longer odds of succeeding in the NFL than players in the A quadrant.

Overall, this is a good draft class for inside linebackers with four A-quadrant players, and four more players close enough to the A-quadrant to consider them strong prospects.

Once again, the mandatory caveat: There are a multitude of factors that determine how well a prospect will do in the NFL. College production and athletic markers are just some of them, but at the very least, they provide some interesting input into the evaluation process.


Here's a graph with the historic SPARQ data for some of the premier linebackers in the game today.

The data here should make us feel much more confident about the model and the data in this post, as it shows a strong correlation between NFL success and athleticism/production.

For the Cowboys, this is a good year to have a need at linebacker. They can get premier talent with their first-round pick, but can also find talent later in the draft. This might even be a good year to double-dip at the position.


Pass-rushing outside linebackers are at a premium in 3-4 schemes, but are probably of slightly lesser interest to a 4-3 team like the Cowboys. But I decided to include a graph for the outside linebackers anyway, even if some of them were already included in the edge rusher post from earlier this week.

Not much to get excited about here. Lots of great athletes in this draft class, but most of them have shown below average production in college.